Carving Mystery Out of Matter
At the risk of being reductive, Oxford defines art as "the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination." And culture as "the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group." Of course, both words in every dictionary have nearly a page's worth of denoted meaning and even more connotations. Still, no matter how you spin it, each one is inescapably concerned with the other. For more than a decade we've told stories of hope in practice all over the globe. As our family of contributors has grown, so have our interests. In this new season of BitterSweet we're opening our editorial mantra to a new world of thought. What might it look like to push against the prevailing narratives of despair - to Reject Cynicism, Defy Apathy, and Celebrate Good - in film, music, food, fashion, visual arts, design, and all the beauty that finds a home under the umbrella of arts and culture?
I've always struggled to reconcile my life's work - art - with the compass that guides said work - my faith. It's an odd condition to be fair. How can one feel called to something while holding on to the fear that the Divine doing that calling might find it objectionable? I was raised in a modern Christian youth tradition obsessed with fabricating "counter-culture." Most often by manufacturing corny, at best, counterfeits of "secular" artistic expression and all the while turning its nose up at thousands of years of culture and artful humanity. In his biography, Eugene Peters recounts a conversation with a nun named Sister Genevieve that stopped me in my tracks when I read it:
"In another conversation, we had been talking about the Lord's Prayer. I interrupted the flow of conversation by saying, "Do you know the petition that (I)? have the hardest time praying, entering into, knowing what I am praying?"
"Of course-'Deliver us from evil! "
"How did you know that?"
"Oh, you Protestants. You are so naive about evil. You know everything about sin but nothing about evil- the prevalence of evil, the persistence of evil, especially in holy places, like this monastery and like your congregation. The mystery of evil. You make cartoon characters out of evil so that you don't have to deal with it in your own households and workplaces, crouching at the door every time you open it. Or else you deny it and label everything that is wrong with the world as a sin you can name and then take charge of getting rid of."
There's much to unpack in that sentiment. Sister Genevieve tapped the glass on a frustration I've struggled much of my life to put words to. For nearly three generations of believers, the big "C" Church has taught at odds with culture and made an enemy of nearly all its expressions. We crafted sniveling mustachioed "cartoon characters" out of genres, pictures, poems, styles, stories, spaces, and textures that all reflect some facet of the Divine image. Prominent Christian leaders joined in burning books and records, condemning works of cultural expression outside a moral mainstream, and picketed in front of museums housing marvels of divine inspiration. We stripped it of its mystery, sanitized it of its questioning, and called it - void of artful spirit or non-homogenous culture - "Christian art" and "Jesus culture." All the while missing out on everything it may have invited us to explore within ourselves and the world around us. Perhaps the Western Church has been late to so many freedom movements of the last 400 or so years because the engine of so many of those movements is often the very art and culture we've come to vilify.
So here, we'll discuss, sing, paint, photograph, cook, eat, and write about art and the culture it informs—and about culture and the art it births. Because in it—in all of it embraced as fully as we are capable in any season—exists everything we might use to push back against those narratives of despair, even in the depths of despair. If you have yet to see hope in the dark washes of Rothko's brush, I encourage you to keep seeking. What music moves you to act, to joy, to tears? Which movies or TV shows hold a mirror to your soul and reveal something new? What do Black mermaids have to do with the kingdom of heaven? And can a simple meal, or recipe, teach us about our neighbors and grow our capacity for empathy? Spoiler, the answer to that last one is a resounding yes.
Editor-in-Chief, BitterSweet Monthly